Few people are better qualified to weigh in on racial tensions and the criminal justice system in the United States than Bryan Stevenson.
Mr. Stevenson, a Delaware native who founded and runs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, is the subject of a recent film that highlights his efforts fighting for the disadvantaged, particularly death row inmates. The movie, “Just Mercy,” was released in December to positive reviews and big box office numbers.
Starring Michael B. Jordan as Mr. Stevenson and also featuring Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson, the film is based on Mr. Stevenson’s memoir of the same name.
A prominent lawyer and activist, Mr. Stevenson, 60, has spent decades fighting for greater equality in society, particularly a reformation of the criminal justice system he feels is vastly unfair to many, especially minorities and the poor. He has successfully argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and been involved in more than 135 reversals, relief or release from prison for death row inmates found to be wrongly convicted.
His life and work is in many ways is defined by America’s “original sin” of slavery and the racial animosity that exists today, more than 150 years after the nation abolished the practice.
Raised in Milton, Mr. Stevenson had to deal with racism at an early age.
“I started my education in a colored school in the 1960s. The effort at racial integration in schools like Milford was disrupted by fear and anger and it took lawyers and ‘rights’ to end the racial bigotry that defined education in our community,” he wrote in an email. “When I finished law school I wanted to use that same rule of law to protect people who are vulnerable, poor, incarcerated and condemned.”
In a 2007 interview with New York University School of Law’s magazine, he recalled how regularly attending church as a child influenced his world view that people are more than their greatest sins, that they are, after all, human, with all the foibles that entails. That attitude of forgiveness continues to shape him today.
After graduating from Cape Henlopen High School, Mr. Stevenson earned a degree from Eastern University and went to Harvard Law School. At the time, he said, he had never met a lawyer before.
It was there he found his passion: fighting for those who could not fight for themselves.
Many see the death penalty as a way to protect against the worst of the worst, using it as a deterrent to crime and as punishment for some of society’s most dangerous offenders. But others view it differently.
To Mr. Stevenson, capital punishment is disproportionately used against black and brown men, as well as individuals who lack the financial means to defend themselves. Compounding matters, he believes, is the fact far too many innocent people end up on death row.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 167 inmates on death row have been exonerated and freed nationwide since 1973. That count does not include individuals who were executed and later found or believed to be innocent.
While attending Harvard, he interned at the Southern Center for Human Rights, where he successfully argued for two inmates to have their death sentences replaced with prison time.
In 1989, just a few years out of Harvard, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative. Today, the nonprofit employs nearly 40 people, according to its website, and has successfully argued before the nation’s top court that mandatory sentences of life without parole for individuals 16 and younger are unconstitutional.
Mr. Stevenson found some notoriety and perhaps his greatest victory early in his career, when he led a crusade to free Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death in 1988 for killing a white woman two years earlier.
The case had strong racial overtones: Not only did it take place in Alabama, one of the bastions of the Confederate “Lost Cause,” Mr. McMillian had been having an affair with a white woman.
Because of the circumstances (including that Mr. McMillian had only a single prior misdemeanor on his record), Mr. Stevenson became very invested in the case. Despite finding evidence that had been withheld during the trial, he was unable to get the sentence overturned, prompting him to turn to an outside source: the media.
After speaking with the lawyer, CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired a special on Mr. McMillian. He was freed a few years later.
“Just Mercy” centers on the case, which Mr. Stevenson hopes can play at least some small part in changing public opinion.
“It’s an enormous step forward to see the McMillian case as the subject of a major motion picture. Mostly because of the impact it can have in getting people to understand things about our system of justice,” he said. “If people saw what I see on a regular basis, they’d want the same things I want. They’d want people treated fairly, innocent people released, people in great need helped.”
In 2018, he opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
In the decades since that ruling, he has continued to fight for criminal justice reform. Although the stigma is changing, he sees the attitude that drug addiction and mental health issues are criminal as backward, believing individuals need treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“There is an epidemic of trauma and violence in some communities that requires an intervention that is informed by health perspectives which could not only lower the prison population but improve public safety,” he said. “We also need to recognize that a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent is a system that needs to be reformed.”
In 2016, Mr. Stevenson came to Delaware to argue for the abolition of the death penalty. Although lawmakers defeated a measure that would have repealed it, Delaware’s top court struck down the statute later that year, finding it to be unconstitutional.
A bill to reinstate capital punishment is currently sitting in the legislature, although its path to passage is uncertain
Delaware has taken several steps to make its criminal justice system less punitive in recent years, which gives hope to Mr. Stevenson the state can serve as a model for the country at large.
To him, many of the nation’s issues can be traced back to racism, even if it is subconscious.
“All over the nation there is a need for us to begin talking more honestly about our history of racial injustice in America. What we’ve done to Native people, black people and other groups that were disfavored is not something we should ignore if we want to become a healthy country,” he said.
“I believe we need an era of truth and justice. We have to acknowledge the mistakes that have been made to have the awareness necessary to avoid problems in the future. Dr. King said that true peace is not the absence of violence but the presence of justice.
“It takes courage but in Rwanda and Germany, something powerful has emerged from horrific violations of human rights. We should try to learn from that.”
While some deny racism is a big problem in the country — a recent Gallup poll found 36 percent of respondents are somewhat or very satisfied with the state of race relations here — others can point to myriad ways it continues to impact Americans. That’s especially relevant for Mr. Stevenson and his life’s passion.
Per the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1976, 21 executions have involved a white offender and black victim, compared to 294 with a white victim and black offender. The center also reports as of July, 41.7 percent of death row inmates across the United States are black, despite the fact just 12.7 percent of Americans are black.
In a 2016 interview with The New Yorker, Mr. Stevenson noted Alabama until recently had dozens of monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders. Despite its celebration of the unsuccessful secession effort and its role in the civil rights struggle, his adopted home state displayed almost nothing commemorating the slaves and free blacks who suffered gross injustices.
In 2018, he opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial, the first such monument “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence,” recognizes the 4,000-plus individuals lynched by their fellow Americans. The museum focuses more broadly on racism and slavery in the United States.
The memorial consists of more than 800 steel slabs, one for each county in the United States that saw a race-based lynching, with the names of victims inscribed on them.
“The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent,” its website states. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.
“EJI is inviting counties across the country to claim their monuments and install them in their permanent homes in the counties they represent. Eventually, this process will change the built environment of the Deep South and beyond to more honestly reflect our history.”